Plastic Brains

Plastic brains

                From birth to old age, we can see and measure the physical changes to our bodies. The changes to our brains are less obvious. Physical changes take place in stages and mental changes also follow the same pattern. The most powerful influence is chronological age. We can estimate a person’s chronological age by their height and weight but also more subtle features such as greying hair or wrinkled skin.

Our physical features are influenced by our chronological age but also by our diet and level of physical activity. Mental development is influenced by age and also by the tasks we ask our brains to perform. Learning develops and changes the brain. Research on adult London taxi drivers has shown that as they learn ‘the knowledge’, the pattern of London streets, there are observable changes to the parts of the brain which record spatial awareness. In Colombian prisons, research has been done on the brains of adult prisoners who have been taught to read whilst in jail. Brain scans have shown development in the areas of the brain which cope with language and comprehension.

Our brains are plastic. Age and mental activity change the shape of our brains and also change the ways in which our brains function.


We are accustomed to the physical changes in babies during their first two years of life. They become taller and stronger, their body shape changes, they learn new skills such as walking and develop listening and speaking skills in their home language. These developments take place naturally, not as a result of formal teaching. The babies develop by discovering the world around them.

Early childhood

Learning to crawl, walk and climb allows the child to explore and discover more and more about their environment. When they encounter a new object, they will be eager to experiment and learn about the new object; is it hard or soft, heavy or light, hot or cold, smooth or rough, tasty or horrible? Young children explore and learn about the physical nature of objects around them, but also, following clues from adults, learn an emotional response to each object. Is it good or bad, safe or dangerous, welcome or unwelcome?

In babyhood and early childhood, we learn about the physical world and also learn to develop social skills. For many children, social skills may start through interaction with pets, household animals. Initially, babies will often treat pets in the same way that they treat their dolls and other toys. Following instruction from parents or other adults, they learn not to pull the tail of the pet or poke their fingers into the pet’s eyes.

When babies have brothers, sisters or other child friends, they will learn similar codes of behaviour for interacting with these young friends. At about the age of two or three, there are changes in the amygdala and frontal cortex of the brain. These parts of the brain control behaviour.

New born babies are entirely selfish. They cry when they are hungry, thirsty, frightened, lonely or uncomfortable. They do not care if their mother has an important appointment in the morning and will happily cry through the night. They will happily kick, pull hair and vomit over your favourite jacket without caring about the consequences. Their lives are not governed by rules or standard patterns of behaviour. Gradually, in households which are governed by routines, babies begin to learn these routines and begin to expect these routines to be followed. If diapers are always changed and the baby is washed before being put to sleep, the baby will come to expect this sequence of actions.

If, when Daddy comes home, he always kisses Mummy before playing with the baby, the baby will learn to expect this pattern of behaviour. In the same way, the baby learns patterns of good behaviour for social interaction. Babies grab anything they want. Anything which they don’t want is quickly rejected or thrown on the floor.

Young children learn to share. They learn to take turns. They learn to be kind to animals and to their friends. This is learnt in two ways: first, they learn the difference between good and bad behaviour and second, they learn to care about other people and animals.

Learning to care about others involves learning that one is not the only person on the planet. There are other people and their feelings are important.

Social skills

A young child learns social skills through regular and frequent contacts and interactions with other children. Children who are deprived of this social contact often start school without these basic social skills. As an ex-primary school teacher, I often observed that children from large families were better behaved than single children. Children from large families had had regular contact with children both older and younger. They had learnt good behaviour from their elder siblings and may have been given more responsibility to help in the house.

Children from large families were not always more intelligent than others, but they were always more self-controlled. They did not whine or get angry when life was not perfect, they accepted the disappointment and got on with the job.

Studies of brain development

The years of babyhood and early childhood are so important in individual development, brain development during this period has been extensively researched and studied. Later brain development in adolescents and teenagers has been largely ignored. We all know that both girls and boys display many physical changes as they progress through puberty. We notice changes in personality and social skills but these are often dismissed as ‘hormonal’.

Recent studies by Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor of cognitive neuroscience at London University, have shown considerable changes in brain structure and function during adolescence which explains typical teenage behaviour and provides useful insights for both parents and teachers.

Typical behaviours during adolescence include:

  1. Heightened self-consciousness
  2. Feeling of embarrassment when with parents or others
  3. Risk taking
  4. Importance of peer influence.

Young children want to please, impress and be loved by their parents, teachers and other adults but teenagers want to impress and be loved by their same-age friends.

This can be seen in teenage diaries. Here’s an entry for 20th July 1969.

  • Went to Arts Centre by myself in yellow cords and a blouse.
  • Ian was there, but he didn’t speak to me.
  • Got rhyme put in my handbag from someone who fancies me – probably Thomas — Ugh!
  • Man landed on the moon.

For this teenage girl, the important things in life are what she is wearing, who she likes and doesn’t like. The fact that Neil Armstrong has landed on the moon is relatively unimportant.

Teenagers need to go through this stage of self-examination of their taste in fashion, of music, of politics and social group. Teenagers need to escape from their childlike role of being attached to parents and family, so that they can find their own personality and role in life. They need to rebel against their parents and traditional authority figures which previously defined their identity. Teenagers are going through an identity crisis, escaping from their child identity and searching for a new identity.

This search for a new identity is not simple. Teenagers are often changeable. As one writer said, they are constantly trying on different hats until they find one which fits.

Teenage brain development

It was previously thought that brain development takes place largely in the first few years of life, but recent studies have shown that teenage brains are also changing and developing. Brain scans have shown many changes in the pre-frontal cortex, the identity centres which control behaviour and sense of identity – the super-ego in Freudian terms.

Girls and Boys

The physical, emotional, educational and social changes, which take place during puberty, start earlier in girls than boys. At the end of Primary school, the boys are large children but the girls have become young women. They are taller, more responsible, more reliable, more ‘serious’. In the playground, girls and boys rarely play together because they have developed different interests. Boys will be running, fighting and playing games. Girls will be in small groups exchanging stories and ‘secrets’ about their most recent passions.

This separation of genders is a prelude to a more drastic separation, the separation of the child from his/ her parents. This child/parent separation may take a number of years but is essential for the young person to develop an independent identity.

Changes in learning patterns

Babies and children learn through exploration and discovery. They learn by looking, touching and hearing. Piaget called this phase concrete operations. Teenagers start to learn through abstract thought. We know that traditional study of grammar is of little value to children but teenagers can begin to handle these abstract concepts. As learners develop through puberty, their ability to think in abstract terms develops, so our teaching style should gradually change.


Each time we get a pair of new shoes, we need a few months of use before the new shoes become comfortable. Put your hand into a pair of new shoes. Compare the surface of the inner sole with the surface of the inner sole in a pair of shoes you have worn for months or years. You will notice that, in your old shoes, the inner sole is indented by the shape and weight of your foot. Old shoes are ‘your’ shoes. New shoes will require a few months of use before they become ‘your’ shoes.

In most countries, children move from Primary school to Secondary school at about the age of 11 or 12. At Secondary school, they are faced with a new style of teaching. Rather than a single Class teacher teaching most parts of the curriculum, learners are faced with a different teacher for each subject. This requires developing a teacher/student relationship with many unfamiliar adults. Each will demand different styles of discipline and each will have different teaching habits.

At the same time, the learner may have been uprooted from their familiar circle of friends and may need to find their place amongst a new group of classmates. Learners have also lost their ‘status’: at primary school they were the senior, most experienced, most responsible students, in Secondary school they become the youngest ‘babies’ again.

In the first year of Secondary school, learners are likely to be bewildered, confused or unhappy. There is usually a short-term reduction in the quality of their school work and there may some behaviour problems. Transition is a difficult time and learners deserve all our sympathy and support.

Many Secondary school teachers are very ignorant of the valuable learning which takes place at Primary school. They may dismiss Primary school learning as ‘colours, rhymes and numbers’ in contrast to the ‘real learning’ in Secondary school. They undervalue the development of skills and concepts in the Primary curriculum. They do not recognise the effort which learners need in Primary lessons, and this lack of recognition leads to a lack of respect for the learners.

Secondary school teachers adopt a more ‘adult’ organised approach to their teaching subject. Often the learners, particularly boys, are not ready for this new approach. They would prefer a more activity-based, less intellectual approach to the subject. This explains the temporary regression in the quality of their school work. The learners will need time to adapt to the new teaching style.

Peer pressure

Young adolescents are very tribal. Their tribe is populated by adolescents of the same age. As in most tribes, there will be leaders and followers. Amongst the followers, there will be specialists; the sports stars, the joke tellers, the artists, the musicians, the collectors. Each tribe member will have a rôle. Part of the adolescent’s search for identity is the search for a rôle within the tribe.

Young children like to impress their teachers and parents. They want to generate praise and affection from their teachers and parents. Adolescents are more concerned with impressing their tribe. Teacher and parental praise is less valuable, tribal praise is the ideal. Tribal praise may be achieved by being impressively naughty. This explains the frequent bad behaviour of adolescents.

The adolescent tribe is living in an unexplored jungle. Tribal praise may also be achieved by daring acts of physical achievement, body art, clothing or sexual transgression. This explains the ever-changing hairstyles, clothing fashions and behaviour patterns displayed by teenagers.

Teachers need to understand this change in the source of praise. Excessive teacher praise may lower an individual’s status within the adolescent tribe which is distinct from the parent / teacher / adult tribe which is seen as the enemy of all adolescents.

Plastic adult brains

As adults gain new skills and widen their cultural horizons, their brains can either continue to be plastic or they can ossify and fossilise. Brains remain plastic if they are constantly confronted with new challenges. Brains ossify when they believe that know everything and have done everything. These brains are unwilling to change. They resist learning anything new.

As we get older, our limbs become less mobile and we develop arthritis in our joints. We can also get arthritis in our brains. We lose the ability to adapt to new technology. We fear confronting new situations. Like a physical athlete, an elderly brain requires regular exercise to keep it nimble.

Learning a new language and making new friends are very good ways to maintain a good level of plasticity in the elderly brain.

Nick Dawson 2015


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